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John Carpenter's The Ward - Jared Harris interview

Jared Harris

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JARED Harris talks exclusively to IndieLondon about making John Carpenter’s The Ward and following in a grand tradition of British villains.

He also talks about playing Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes 2, why the writing on Mad Men excels, working with David Fincher on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the best advice his father, the late Richard Harris, ever gave him.

Q. I gather the first thing you asked when taking on the role of Dr Stringer was whether John Carpenter wanted an American or English accent? When he said English, because it makes you sound more believable [by virtue of the accent] was that a relief?
Jared Harris: Well, I’m so used to doing accents at this point… even the character on Mad Men is not my own accent. Obviously, English is an easier accent to do. But I liked doing it in English because it added to that kind of strangeness. There was a quality in the character that meant you weren’t supposed to know whether he was good or bad. He looks, at times, like he’s incredibly evil and torturing that girl. So, if he was English, it would follow in that great tradition of English bad guys and it was a good misdirect for the audience. When you found out what he’s actually doing, it’s a great piece of sleight of hand.

Q. How was working with John Carpenter?
Jared Harris: Great! I mean I’ve seen all his films. I distinctly remember going to see Assault on Precinct 13 with my older and younger brothers at the Odeon High Street Ken[sington] and coming away so exited that a movie could be made like that. I remember going to see Halloween really, really clearly. But he’s made so many movies… Starman was another of his and I remember going to see The Thing while I was at college in North Carolina. So, I was absolutely thrilled when I got to meet him on set for that first time.

Q. Did he live up to expectations?
Jared Harris: I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest. But he’s got a sort of unique way of running a set, which is actually quite a smart way of doing it. He had an area for anyone who wanted to go and chat. It was away from the set. But if and when you were around the set and the camera, all conversations were only about getting the next shot, so if you weren’t talking about you were doing you were wasting everyone’s time. In that sense, he works very efficiently and is normally finished on time. In fact, we never ran over. He’s rather like Guy Ritchie in that way… you finish every day at 5pm or 6pm.

Q. Is that novel for an actor?
Jared Harris: It is! But the crew love it too. I remember John said something along the lines of you can either sit around talking about where you are going to dinner and still be on the set at 9pm and missing out, or you can shut up , do job and you can actually get to enjoy that juicy steak at the great restaurant of your choosing [laughs]!

Q. So, digressing slightly, how was working with Guy Ritchie on Sherlock Holmes 2?
Jared Harris: Great… very, very exciting. I love that movie as well [laughs].

Q. And you’re the villain everyone wanted to see in the first film – Moriarty?
Jared Harris: Yes! I was wondering if they were going to re-dub that voice [from the first film] – but not so far. But filming this was great fun. They had a tremendous sense of improv on set, which was great. Robert [Downey Jr] keeps you on your toes and both of them are just determined to tell a story in a way that you don’t expect.

Q. Any glimpses of what to expect from Moriarty?
Jared Harris: I cannot say anything otherwise I would have to send my minions over to kill you!

Jared Harris in The Ward

Q. Back to The Ward then… how was working alongside Amber Heard?
Jared Harris: She’s very committed, which was good [for the role]. She cares deeply about what she’s doing and she’s in that sort of weird, strange place right now where everyone is watching to see what your next move is, and everyone’s willing you on, and they all want to be a piece of it… It’s a little bit weird and you need to protect yourself when you’re in those situations! But she was great and she’s absolutely determined to do the best job she possibly can. She commits to everything, including the physical stuff. I felt terrible when we were doing the electric shock therapy scenes. She looked like she was really suffering… she was acting, of course [laughs]!

Q. Did you do any research into psychiatry or look to any past performances of psychiatrists on film for the sleight of hand element?
Jared Harris: Well, I think id’ have these moments where I’d not necessarily access some role of a psychiatrist, but go into a little bit of Dracula here or some Gothic villain. John would then have to bring me down [laughs]. But it was good fun to be able to do a bit of ham acting. John would say: “That’s the idea, but we don’t want that much, otherwise they’ll know what’s going on!” So, it was just playing with the idea of maybe being that kind of villain from some film you may have seen… you know, in the way that you cross the room and close the curtains while glaring at somebody.

Q. The Ward has much more of an old fashioned, psychological feel to it. Is that part of the appeal, rather than the shock and gore tactics of so many modern horror films?
Jared Harris: Yeah, there was much more of a psychological element to it… you’re relying on suspense more. Too many [modern] horror films rely now on the torture of humans or chopping them up and that’s disgusting. I remember the first time I saw that film Hostel… my agent said they were trying to set up a meeting for me to do the sequel, so I thought I’d better go and watch the first one. Admittedly, story-telling wise it was fucking amazing. I mean, you did not see that stuff coming! You just thought it be a disgusting, gross serial killer film. But when it was revealed it was so much sicker. The depravity of it was staggering… I had to go and have two showers after I saw it!

Q. When it comes to work, you’re known for TV, theatre and film, so how do you choose your projects?
Jared Harris: I think it’s a bunch of different things really. I try and do something that people haven’t seen me do before in… I just keep trying to change it up. For some reason, everyone in this business is very keen to pigeon hole you quickly, so I’m currently getting lots of scripts involving uptight Englishmen in three piece suits. But why would want to do that again? I’m doing it on Mad Men! So, you look for something in the part that you haven’t done before, that attracts you… or maybe it’s another actor or director you’d like to work with. And then there are the practical realities – your landlord won’t take a potential cheque, they want real money [laughs]!

Jared Harris

Q. Given your family background, was it always inevitable that you’d become an actor?
Jared Harris: Well, I didn’t get into it until I was at college in the US. I came to it quite late. I thought I was going to be a lawyer or something like that. I used to argue a lot, apparently, and enjoyed it. I can’t remember that far back but my dad thought I’d be a good lawyer. So, I got into it by accident while I was at college in North Carolina. I was always fascinated by it. All three of us [brothers] have gone into the business. And my father was a very, very strong influence. He was passionate about it and that was very exciting to be around.

Often, we’d sit around and talk about theatre and he’d talk about the performances he’d seen and the different interpretations of them he’d witnessed. He’d re-live them so vividly for you that it seemed so fantastic and exciting. One of his favourites was Hamlet and the various different performances of Hamlet he’d seen and how each person had a different approach or found something different in the role. That was fascinating to listen to…

Q. What’s the greatest piece of advice he gave you?
Jared Harris: He’d give you career advice. It’s hard to give you advice about playing a particular role unless you’d both read the same script. So you could talk about classic roles, such as Hamlet, and different interpretations of it. But the piece of advice he gave me about my career was that it’s all about momentum – you’ve got to get the ball rolling and keep it rolling.

Q. How was working with someone like David Fincher on Benjamin Button?
Jared Harris: Great! I’d love to work with him again. He gives you tremendous freedom and time… you don’t feel rushed. I loved doing something 30 or 40 times. I mean, you don’t actually get to act very much even when you’re hired. Normally you sit on the set, hanging around for ages and then suddenly you’ve got to be ready, do two or three takes and then you’re moving on. So, you have to be really prepared. It’s very deliberate in that sense. You have to be prepared… you come in with a Plan A and to have a Plan B is good. But often with just three takes you don’t get near Plan B.

Jared Harris

On his stuff, you get a Plan A, B, C, D and anything after that and it’s great fun. You really feel like you haven’t left anything behind and you won’t be driving home that night thinking: “Oh fuck, I should have tried it this way!” He loves actors, so the whole thing is there to help you do what you need to do. In that sense, he has the whole world there for you. When I’m buying that whisky in my first scene, for instance, I had the right change to pay for my drink in my pocket and they were coins from that period. So, to be able to walk into that bar and see that picture was amazing. It was like being able to walk into that time period. And it almost never happens that way… normally, the bit they care about is the bit on the screen.

Q. Coming to Mad Men, will you be playing an integral part in season 5 whenever it arrives?
Jared Harris: I’m signed up to come back… but you never know what’s going to happen. They don’t tell you anything. You get the script the day before you start shooting – literally, it’s that week for that episode. So, a piano could fall from the sky and land on my head in the first few moments of the season… who knows? [Laughs]

Q. But it is must be an amazing show to be a part of? Everyone loves it…
Jared Harris: Amazing, fantastic, yes. The writing is stunning. When you’re at drama school you spend so much time working on amazing texts and analyzing them, digging into them, and figuring out why it happens, why you are being asked to say what you’re saying, and what the words mean. But then when you start working, most of the stuff would just fall apart if you subject it to that kind of scrutiny. But this is one of the few times you really can sit there and figure out why he [the writer] decides to give you the words you’ve got. It can be dissected and it all ties in – you really get a sense of what he has in his mind. It’s terrific in that sense.

Q. And will you also be working with your brother, Jamie, on Art’s Demise?
Jared Harris: I’d love to work with both of my brothers. Art’s Demise is something we’re still trying to set up, so nothing has been confirmed. But we’re also working on something else… something that Jamie has written called Down Dog. It’s a comedy about two Brits finding their way in Los Angeles. We’re working on that together right now and it’s fun. It’s kind of a weird mix of Shampoo and Withnail and I and it’s very funny. He has a tremendous ear for dialogue. It has very, very witty dialogue. So, we’re looking to get that set up.

Read our interview with John Carpenter

John Carpenter’s The Ward is released on DVD & Blu-ray on Monday, October 17, 2011.